Written by Hanna Lee
Former Washington Congresswoman, Linda Smith, was serving her first term in the United States House of Representatives when she received a call from a man working with young children on the streets of Mumbai, India. He told her of horrible atrocities and exposed one of the causes for the many children on the streets: their mothers were forced into prostitution as teenagers.
â€śHe kept talking about things so horrible you couldnâ€™t even imagine, it was almost unbelievable to me. I literally couldnâ€™t sleep,â€ť recalls Smith. She arranged for a fast visa to visit India. Around midnight on her first night, she went to where rows of young girls, some as young as 11-years-old, were being held in prostitution. After witnessing such a monstrosity firsthand, Smith knew she had to organize an effort in Mumbai to fund a shelter for the girls to escape to. In 1998, Smith founded Shared Hope International to rescue and restore women and children in crisis.
Shared Hope International’s first Village of Hope opened in 1999 and included six safe houses. Shortly thereafter, construction began in the mountains of Nepal for a 72â€“acre, villageâ€“style development comprised of several homes, an educational facility, and a vocational school. Many of the girls forced into prostitution in India are from Nepal. They are sold into sex slavery by their parents or snatched under false pretenses from immense poverty by being promised they will be taken to work in a factory or to study at college. Shared Hope International opened Village of Hope in Nepal so girls trafficked from Nepal to India could have the opportunity to return home and start a new life.
Congresswoman Smith utilized her political base to spread the word about what she witnessed in Mumbai. She reached out to her campaign donors and explained her reasoning for leaving politics to help these young women. Smith garnered support and went on to open homes outside of Amsterdam, Jamaica, South Africa and The Dominican Republic. â€śShared Hope International wants to provide safe refuge for all women and children under 18 who are sex traffic victims under the United Nations protocol,â€ť declares Smith. In 2001, Shared Hope International formed a group coalition to raise international awareness on sex trafficking and sex tourism: War Against Trafficking Alliance (WATA) was formed.
In 2003, Congresswoman Smith and WATA organized in conjunction with Colin Powell and the U.S. State Department the first world summit on sex trafficking called, â€śPath Breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking.â€ť The summit aimed to devise practical solutions to the problems of sex tourism and trafficking.
Soon, Shared Hope International started to hire investigators to infiltrate trafficking rings in the United States. Shared Hope International submitted its first report, â€śThe National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children,” in 2009. It was frightening for Congresswoman Smith to realize that girls were targeted as traffic victims in America as well and were typically average middle class teens from the suburbs.
Traffickers blackmail and manipulate girls into prostitution, and the laws in America differ from U.N. standards in other countries. â€śIn our country, men shop for girls in prostitution without fear of going to jail because if money changes hands she is considered a prostitute and thereby the criminal even if sheâ€™s legally a child,â€ť Smith explains. â€śI knew I had to write a pattern of law for all the states so that the girl will be definitively the victim and [the trafficker] the criminal.â€ť Shared Hope Internationalâ€™s goal is to develop a federal mandate so there is consistency in the law from state to state punishing the buyer of sex.
Smith believes if Americans were more aware that sex trafficking was happening in their own state, the practices would be completely abolished. She uses domestic violence as an example: â€śWe worked hard to change the domestic violence laws when it became part of the public understanding and people demanded their own states to stand up and change the laws.â€ť Shared Hope Internationalâ€™s latest campaign brings sex trafficking into the public eye front and center with a billboard displaying a man in a respectable shirt and tie with the sentence: â€śThis man wants to rent your daughterâ€ś Smith acknowledges their shock value. â€śWeâ€™re aware of the controversy the billboards might bring, but that is the point. These traffickers are going after girls younger and younger, and we need to stop and make people think so we can pass these laws to keep [girls] safe.â€ť
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